Turkish president to Sudan, Khartoum agreed to hand over the Island of Suakin in the Red Sea to Ankara, triggering Arab concerns even though no statements were made expressing the trepidation of Sudan’s neighbours.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went with his Sudanese counterpart Omar Al-Bashir to Suakin Island, Sudan’s main port during the 18th and 19th centuries and the base of an Ottoman fleet protecting the Islamic holy sites in the Hijaz of Mecca and Medina.
There were mosques for both the Hanafi and Shafie schools of Islam on the Island, as well as palaces, government offices and markets. It was the crossing point for African pilgrims going to the Hijaz.
During his visit, Erdogan said he wanted to “rebuild” abandoned Ottoman historical sites in the old port, neglected after the construction of Port Sudan by the then British colonial authorities in 1906.
During a signing ceremony in Khartoum, Erdogan said Al-Bashir had agreed to “temporarily” grant Suakin to Turkey in order to rebuild Ottoman historical sites and a port servicing military and commercial vessels. He added that Turkish pilgrims could stop over on Suakin on their way to Mecca and Medina on pilgrimage.
Chief of the Turkish General Staff Hulusi Akar, who accompanied Erdogan, said Turkish cooperation with Sudan could develop into “military industries” or “forms of military cooperation,” according to Reuters.
Turkish television channel TRT World reported that Al-Bashir had promised to take back Suakin as soon as Turkey completed work there, though he did not give a timeline.
Few details are available about the Suakin deal, said editor of the newspaper Hurriyat Sudan Al-Haj Warraq. “This deal begins with building a port for ship maintenance, but it will implicitly be a military base if Ankara wants to transfer troops to Somalia or even Qatar,” Warraq said.
He noted that Turkey and Sudan were largely isolated from their surroundings. “Sudan has tense relations with most of its neighbours, exchanging accusations with South Sudan and Eritrea, a freeze in relations with Egypt and the Central African Republic, severed ties with Libya, and even an end of mutual interests with Ethiopia.”
“Meanwhile, Turkey has been quarreling with the EU, and cooperation between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus is a source of trepidation, especially after Turkey was refused rights to extract natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. The situations in Syria and Iraq also jeopardise Turkey’s interests. It is at odds with Iran over Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad remaining in power, and it has an age-old conflict with Armenia.”
“These circumstances explain why the two countries want an alliance, and both have Political Islam regimes,” Warraq said. Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party has adopted a Muslim Brotherhood ideology similar to the ideology of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey.
Fayez Al-Slek, editor of the Sudanese newspaper Al-Tayyar, which has been shut down by the Sudanese security agencies, said the Suakin deal was aimed against Egypt if viewed through the lens of Erdogan’s Africa tour which included Chad and Tunisia. These countries are neighbours of Libya, which is engulfed in a civil war between Islamists backed by Turkey, Qatar and Sudan and their opponents supported by Egypt and its Gulf allies.
Egypt and Sudan became openly hostile to each other after Khartoum declared support for the Muslim Brotherhood group Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) and severed ties with Islamists in Tripoli.
“Suakin is very close to Saudi Arabia, but it is closer still to Egypt,” Al-Slek said. “Arab condemnation could send the region to the precipice of a war that no one wants. The status quo may not remain for long.”
“A military base on Suakin would be a serious development for Sudan’s neighbours. Ethiopia and Egypt could put their differences about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam aside and work together to combat an alliance that will empower Political Islam groups that Addis Ababa is nervous about and Egypt is fighting,” he added.
Although there have not been any official Arab statements expressing concern, the media in the Gulf countries and Egypt has focused on the Suakin deal.
Cairo is worried the Island could become a Turkish military base to “smuggle terrorists into Egypt with Qatari funding.” The Gulf is concerned it could be used by Iran to smuggle arms to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, especially since the Sudanese port is midway between the north and south of the Red Sea.
During Erdogan’s visit, Sudan and Turkey also signed 13 agreements worth $650 million, including for a new international airport in Khartoum, an abbatoir, grain silos, a power plant, a steel factory and others.
In 2014, Turkey leased 780,000 square km in Sudan to establish an agricultural project that has yet to materialise. Trade between the two countries stands at around $500 million a year, of which $328 million makes up Turkish exports to Sudan and $78 million in the other direction.
Erdogan said during the signing ceremony that he wanted to increase trade to $1 billion and then to $10 billion in the coming period.
An article by a Turkish expert on African affairs on the Turkish state-owned Website TRT World noted that increasing trade between Turkey and Sudan to $1 billion would take “several years”.
Two decades of harsh US sanctions against Sudan ended recently, and Khartoum wants to attract $10 billion in foreign investment, according to Sudan’s minister of investment, and not $1 billion annually as estimated by the UN.
Since Erdogan came to power in Turkey, trade between Turkey and Sub-Saharan African countries rose from $1.75 billion in 2006 to $4 billion in 2015, dropping slightly over the past two years, according to Turkish statistics.
Trade with North Africa was $3 billion and peaked at $10 billion in 2013, then dropped to $8 billion in 2017. Some observers believe the drop was due to the Muslim Brotherhood leaving power in Egypt and the absence of a central Libyan state, causing Turkey and Sudan to draw closer together, Al-Slek commented.
“Strong ties between Qatar and Turkey have pushed Saudi Arabia and the UAE away from Ankara,” he noted. “This limits the possiblity of economic cooperation with the Gulf.”
The Gulf countries are worried about the Turkish presence on the Red Sea since Iran now also controls the Yemeni port of Al-Hudayda through its Houthi proxies in Yemen. This is despite the UAE presence in Eritrea and Saudi Arabia building a military base in Djibouti to support its war in Yemen.
These factors have made the Red Sea region a centre of political and military contention, further burdening regional countries after years of instability.